Karl Benson was in Los Angeles on Wednesday to drop off his daughter for her freshman year at USC. In a way, the WAC commissioner probably felt like a college freshman pondering the possibilities on the horizon.
The future looked bright for the WAC. His league seemed on the verge of completing a deal that would bring back BYU as a non-football member. That would dovetail with BYU's choice to go independent in football and allow the WAC to emerge stronger at the end of the day than the Mountain West, the league that poached defending WAC football champ Boise State earlier this summer.
Who knew? Maybe, after BYU's exit from the Mountain West, Boise State might even come crawling back to the WAC.
But Benson underestimated the stone-cold determination of a man whose conference teetered on the edge of destruction. Like the Big 12's Dan Beebe before him, MWC commissioner Craig Gekko -- I mean, Thompson -- moved quickly to save his league. Unlike Beebe, who worked out a financial arrangement to keep five Big 12 members from joining the Pac-10, Thompson's only option was a counterattack that, by Wednesday night, left the WAC in tatters.
"During the course of the day, [I] watched what was expected to be a very beneficial relationship with BYU disintegrate due to selfish actions of two WAC schools, Fresno State and Nevada," Benson said Thursday. "In a 12-hour period, the WAC went from having a secure and prosperous future to once again not knowing what the future will hold."
From the WAC, the Mountain West swiped Fresno State and Nevada, two programs that offer little in the way of television market penetration. It's highly unlikely either one will help the Mountain West attain the BCS automatic-qualifying status it covets. Instead, the Bulldogs and Wolf Pack offered something far more important: survival.
Though far fewer dollars are at stake, the Junior Varsity edition of the realignment shuffle will end with more hurt feelings and more scorched earth than its more high-profile counterpart. The WAC now has six schools. After Fresno State and Nevada leave, it will need to add at least one school within two years to keep its automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament. As a football league, it now ranks below the Sun Belt. In other words, dead last among the 11 FBS conferences. It wants the $5 million each school promised last week should they try to bolt in the next five years. No one from Nevada signed the contract, so that issue probably is bound for court. More than likely, Fresno State and Nevada leaders rolled the dice that after they departed, there wouldn't be a WAC left to collect the exit fee. Benson has promised his league will seek out new members, but that also is fraught with complications. The WAC isn't attractive to current FBS schools, and yanking schools up from the FCS brings with it another set of issues.
The Mountain West, meanwhile, still has a chance to emerge almost as strong as it was before it lost Utah to the soon-to-be Pac-12. By cutting off the WAC at the knees, the Mountain West made the independence decision much more difficult for BYU. Does it now send its other sports to the West Coast Conference, a league of small private schools best known for Gonzaga men's basketball and Pepperdine baseball? None of the current WCC members would qualify as a peer institution for BYU. The largest, Santa Clara, has an enrollment of 8,377. BYU has more than 30,000 students.
Still, Thompson didn't seem completely confident Wednesday night that BYU would stay in the Mountain West. "We do the best we can. We offer the quality of competition that we do. We make your home in this conference as comfortable as possible," Thompson said. "If there is something that is more appealing or intriguing, we're not going to stand in anybody's way -- as we found out with the University of Utah. ... BYU, at 9:49 [p.m. Mountain time Wednesday], is a member of the Mountain West conference."
BYU now gets to play the role already played this summer by Texas and Notre Dame, albeit on a smaller scale. Do the Cougars go independent -- with all the inherent scheduling risks that choice entails -- and potentially reap the financial rewards? Or do they stick it out with the MWC and hope the BCS bestows an at-large bid upon the conference for 2012 and 2013? Chances are, the league will not meet the criteria set forth by the BCS to attain AQ status. (It bears noting that, at the moment, neither would the ACC or Big Ten, but those two are contractually bound to receive an automatic bid.)
BYU now must weigh which move grants it easier passage to the BCS, and a certain BYU alumnus who serves in the U.S. Senate could play a critical role. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is the most powerful enemy of the BCS. It seemed, for a while, that BCS brass might be willing to grant a waiver to give the MWC AQ status for 2012 and 2013 just to get Hatch off their case. Now, does the BCS offer a sweetheart deal -- similar to Notre Dame's -- to an independent BYU and achieve the same goal at a lower cost?
Hopefully, these questions will be answered in the next installment of As the Collegiate Conferences Turn.